Learning How You Write

It is a long held belief that there is no one way to write, and that those who tell you differently, tell you that their way is the One True Way, are at best ill-informed. More likely, they’re trying to sell you advice that they know is worthless.

I’m not going to disabuse you of this notion. I believe that this axiom is even more true than we think.

When I was working on my first solo novel (I had already published one book with a co-author, the author Newsweek called “The Hans Christian Andersen of American Children’s Literature” AKA Mom), my agent of that time, Marilyn Marlow (a great agent, mentor, and old school literary operator), made an offhand comment that has stuck with me. In a phone conversation where I was relating the troubles and joys I was experiencing writing a novel on my own, she said, “Oh, you’re just learning how you write.”

Not “Learning how to write.” Definitely “Learning how you write.”

I never thought she misspoke; Marilyn didn’t. And as I devoured writing instructionals and scoured the internet for tidbits of advice, I always kept her words in mind and, by extension, thought I understood that everyone had their different process.

I didn’t realize how different they could be.

I was in a critique group with a writer who is both best-selling and brilliant. He had presented a story that was not (to my mind) working. And what wasn’t working was the framing of the piece: an overly complex/clever structure that was distracting from the story. I figured this for an easy fix: ditch the framing.

You see, I come from the “The story is all” line of writing theory. Everything you do as a writer is to serve The Story. If the structure, tense, viewpoint etc. is getting in the way of the story, you ditch it, switch it, rewrite it until the story shines through cleanly, without interference from these other things that ultimately don’t matter. What you never do, never even consider doing, is change the story to fit a form. It is not done. It is unheard of.

It is heresy.

So, I was more than gobsmacked when the above author said to me, “I’m not ditching the structure. It’s the whole reason I wrote the piece.”

Clearly, my “Story is all” narrative did not fit with my “Everyone has their own way to write” narrative.

Since the author telling me this was an excellent writer as well as commercially successful (two things that neither necessarily go together, nor are mutually exclusive), it was immediately clear which narrative was false.

“The story is all” was just one of my—and many other authors’—”way we wrote.” It is a widely and forcefully held belief, and yet ultimately, is only true to those who believe it. It is not necessary to create art.

I tried to think of other deeply held beliefs that probably weren’t as true as I believed and immediately came up with, “You can’t write solely for the money.” It seems to me that James Patterson could give you 100 million reasons a year why that isn’t true. “A writer writes every day?” Even my mother, who is at 375 books and counting takes days off.

This is all more of a thought exercise than anything. If I could write solely for the money I’d have done it long before now. I just find it interesting how insidious and ingrained beliefs can be. And even when they’re not harmful, I feel its instructive to examine them. There is nothing to be gained from blind belief.